Volume 7, Issue 5
By Margie Gillis, Ed.D.
PL 94-142: A Brief History
The federal law PL 94-142, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), was passed in 1975—the year that I began my teaching career. The law “was designed to ensure that children with disabilities be granted a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE)” (DO-IT, 2017).
The movement to ensure equal rights for all children was born out of the civil rights movement, in particular, the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
I have been a teacher, and I have trained many teachers since 1975. Despite good intentions, instruction, evaluations necessary to guide instruction, and instructional materials have in general not been informed by the research as well as the laws have. This chasm between knowledge based on research and practice has created a huge gap between the noble expectations of IDEA and the realities that all those who parent or teach children with disabilities must face every day.
Back to 1975. My first “classroom”—a storage closet—was physically and methodologically (as I later learned) distinct from the regular education classrooms that included my students. Despite our seclusion, I soon realized that the students enjoyed working with me, and their teachers were grateful because they did not know how to provide appropriate reading instruction for these students. Long before the research underlying those practices was analyzed and synthesized by the National Reading Panel (NRP), I was able to teach most of my students to read because I had learned the theory behind what would later be referred to as “evidence-based practices.” I also tried to support my students’ success by spending my “free” time before and after school running from classroom to classroom to meet with my students’ classroom teachers. Since at the time there were no systems in place to coordinate instruction occurring in various settings for the same students, I wanted to ensure that our instruction was aligned.
As PL 94-142 was being implemented, specific language referred to as “least restrictive environment” encouraged a trend for students to be included in the mainstream.
As I moved across the country through the early years of IDEA, working as a special education teacher in several states, I was disturbed to observe other common trends:
- Students had to fail first in order to be identified.
- Tiers of instruction within school systems were disconnected.
- Neither special education teachers nor general education teachers had received the training necessary to understand, value, and apply the science of reading.
The law…seemed to have a fundamental disconnect from the basic science of learning and teaching reading.
As for me, in my middle career journey, post-2000, hopeful that the NRP results would inspire changes in teacher preparation and knowing that my special education students’ academic success hinged on their ability to receive well-informed “tier one” instruction, I shifted my attention to the general education setting.
Scattered areas of excellence exist as waterholes in a desert of frustrated efforts to “leave no child behind.”
What Have We Learned?
Today, over 43 years after PL 94-142 passed into law, I still hear from many special education teachers in the field that they are not well-equipped to meet their students’ needs. When probed about what they are missing, the responses vary:
- Lack of professional development
- Inadequate resources/materials
- Not enough time
- Inflexible schedules.
Another comment I frequently hear is that special education teachers are not taught to teach students to read. The first time a teacher confessed this to me, I was in disbelief. Teachers described what was missing from their prep programs:
- Only one or two reading courses—general in nature
- No supervised practicum experience to show them what to do for the kids who couldn’t read—and provide an opportunity for them to learn what to do and how to do it with guidance.
In addition, it was, and still is, often the case that students with identified learning disabilities have not been assessed with appropriate diagnostic measures—resulting in ineffective instruction delivered by uninformed (through no fault of their own) teachers.
Still today, in regular education classrooms across the country, teachers are wondering what to do to help at-risk students. Most are expected to deliver “tier 2” instruction (i.e., a second dose of targeted reading instruction designed to meet their students’ individual needs based on data). However, there are many constraints that preclude this from happening—effectively or at all.
What Can We Do?
If we are truly committed to meeting the needs of our students, and if we believe that many, if not most, educators want their students to be successful, we must work together on their behalf—parents, educators (including administrators), policy-makers, and citizens. Following are some suggestions:
- Continue to pass state laws that specify how to identify and instruct children with learning disabilities, including dyslexia. In addition, require all preservice teachers to pass a dedicated reading test that assesses their knowledge of the science of teaching reading.
- Encourage institutes of higher education to train their education professors to teach the science of teaching reading.
- Include preservice and graduate courses taught by experienced teachers.
- Provide a supervised practicum that uses evidence-based reading instruction.
- Assist local education agencies in providing classroom-based professional development for post-certified teachers who demonstrate the need for on-going support.
- Work with district and school-based administrators to build in time for general ed and special ed teachers to collaborate so that their instruction is aligned—particularly for students with identified learning disabilities.
In 2018, teachers should no longer need to wonder about the science of learning and reading. We know what to do, how to do it, who should be doing it, and what the results should look like. So, let’s work together to make it happen!
DO-IT. (2017). What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Retrieved from https://www.washington.edu/doit/what-individuals-disabilities-education-act
More from Margie Gillis:
Margie B. Gillis, EdD, CALT, is a Certified Academic Language Therapist who became interested in reading while studying with Isabelle Liberman at the University of Connecticut. In 2009, Margie founded Literacy How to provide professional development on how best to implement research-based reading practices in the classroom. In 2010, Margie founded the Anne E. Fowler Foundation to continue the work of her mentor. Margie also is the co-founder and former president of Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, the former president of the CT Branch of IDA, and a board member of the New Alliance Foundation. She is also a professional adviser for Read Works and Understood. The column Chronicles from the Classroom presents her experiences in the field of reading and offers concrete suggestions about what we can do to right the educational ship.
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